Seferis, George (Pseudonym of Giorgos Stylianou Seferiades; also Transliterated as Georgios Stylianou Seferiadis) 1900–1971
Seferis, a Nobel Prize-winning Greek poet, was also a distinguished translator and critic. Seferis combined Greek mythology with modern poetic techniques and is generally credited with the renovation of twentieth-century Greek poetry. His work has been likened to the Symbolists, who were early influences. Odysseus is a recurring image in his work, that eternal wanderer being Seferis's symbol of spiritually dispossessed modern man. (See also CLC, Vol. 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.)
[The funeral of George Seferis] proved to be a more or less spontaneous public event, not to say political demonstration, of a kind normally reserved in Greece for the passing of popular prime ministers illegally out of office. The drama and symbolism of it—thousands of young people raising the victory sign at the poet's grave, shouting "immortal", "freedom", "elections", and singing an early Seferis lyric … would surely have surprised the poet himself even more than it may have surprised his readers in England and America. Less than three years before his death …, Seferis declared, in one of the few interviews he allowed to appear in print:
I am sorry to say that I never felt I was the. spokesman for anything or anybody…. I've never felt the obligation…. Others think they are the voices of the country. All right. God bless them….
When Seferis published a volume of poems dedicated to the people of Cyprus in 1955—his first volume since the death of Sikelianos—critics in Greece, quick to dress him in the mantle of national poet, either celebrated the publication as an eloquent defence of Greek interests in the Cyprus dispute or criticised the poet for beginning to write what was understood to be propaganda in verse form. The new volume was, in fact, typical of the kind of poetry that Seferis had been writing since the middle 1930s and especially during World War II, "political" poetry only in the broadest sense of the term: a persona brooding over the "new idiocies of men/or of the gods" that had brought on renewed suffering, fearful always that he is "fated to hear newsbearers coming to tell him" that the latest war is "all for an empty tunic, all for a Helen" (as he puts it in his 1955 poem alluding to Euripides' heroine). The persona of the Cyprus volume is much the same as that of "The Last Stop", written ten years earlier, at the end of World War II, just as the poet was returning to Greece from Italy after his long service with the Greek Government-in-exile…. (p. 37)
What the critics of the Cyprus volume failed to recognise was that the poet had succeeded in transcending propaganda—and anything approaching it—by taking the same large view, by giving expression to the same mythologising sensibility that had characterised his vision of the contemporary predicament (including that of his own nation) since Mythistorima , the 1935 volume of mythologised history that had established his as the most important new voice in Greek letters. It was understandable that the narrow response to the Cyprus volume might irritate the poet enough to make him dismiss any sort of public role for the kind of poet he chose to be. At the same time Seferis remained Greek through to his bones. [He] continued to be a "national" poet in his capacity for dramatising personal preoccupations in those terms that help to define the enduring qualities of his nation, for example, its landscape, its legends, its...
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demotic traditions in literature. (pp. 37-8)
Seferis's irritation regarding the public role he was supposed to play became acute after the Nobel Prize award of 1963 moved him on to an international stage. He was now not only poet laureate, but the first Greek Nobel laureate of any kind, with a fame that quickly spread far beyond national boundaries. And if those of his countrymen who never read poetry sometimes confused him with a Greek soccer star of similar name and renown, many of those who knew better began to look to him for the sort of prophetic leadership that nobody else was providing…. But whatever Seferis's private sentiments, he remained adamant at first about avoiding public pronouncements. (p. 38)
If the official attitude towards Seferis in the months following his statement [against the régime, March, 1969,] was essentially one of pretending that he was too senile to be taken seriously, the attitude of intellectual circles in Athens, from students to fellow writers, was one of homage that soon approached adoration. "The Poet" became "Our Poet." It was not merely that Seferis had finally acceded with full heart to his expected role of laureate-spokesman, but as the first independent man of mind with the courage to speak out on an international stage against the régime and the drift of its ambitions, he served to free others with less opportunity for courage and a smaller platform. The immediate result of his influence was the coming together of a group of writers, with disparate political affiliations but a common distaste for the Junta, a rather motley but nevertheless committed intellectual underground that produced a strong anti-régime statement supporting Seferis's position, and, eventually, a volume of anti-régime stories, poems, and essays entitled Eighteen Texts, with the lead contribution Seferis's latest poem, "The Cats of St. Nicholas."…
[An effect of the volume was] to put Seferis at the centre of opposition to the régime's control over the intellectual life of the country, to make him gradually the unacknowledged leader of dispossessed students and the silent voice of those with no public outlet for their own brooding sense of injustice—until the feeling he had engendered found an ultimate release in the surprises of his funeral. (p. 40)
Edmund Keeley, in Encounter (© 1972 by Encounter Ltd.), March, 1972.
A writer like Seferis may suffer in a minority language many disadvantages in his lifetime, but, if he is a great writer, as Seferis was, surely he puts the rest of the world at a disadvantage until it learns that language. Meanwhile, we must do what we can with the devices of translation and literary gossip. It is worth noticing that the harmonious rumble of his prose is almost as difficult to reproduce in English as his poetry.
"Poet on a Pony," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers, Ltd. (London) 1974; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), January 4, 1974, p. 4.
[The publication of this translation of A Poet's Journal: Days of 1945–1951] represents an act of personal homage on the part of each of us to one of this century's greatest poets and most civilized men. (pp. vii-viii)
[No] one, under whatever circumstances, can fail to be moved by the intimacy and intensity of these journal entries, which take us so completely into the heart and mind of the poet and his creative act, in a way that few other such documents do. There are other great literary journals in this century—Gide's, Woolf's, Camus's, Pavese's—and there are also collections of letters which help us better to understand an author. But I cannot think of many which expose quite so clearly the naked thought and sensibility out of which poems have grown. Generally, the closest we seem to get to the genesis of literary works is in documents such as the canceled version of The Waste Land. This journal, however, reveals to us the deep inner sources of Seferis's poetic achievement. It possesses that candor of revelation and that rare numinous quality which we associate with James's notebooks and the letters of Keats and Rilke. (p. viii)
With [his title], Seferis joins hands with, and pays tribute to, the greatest of his predecessors in modern Greek literature, Constantine Cavafy, a number of whose most personal and powerful poems begin with the same title, though of course with different dates. And indeed, if any spirit haunts these pages, it is that of Cavafy—Cavafy the European, Cavafy the Greek, the lonely exile, the skeptical political observer, the chronicler of history, the forger of language, the celebrant of love, the man of memories, the witness and martyr (in his tongue the same word signifies both) of the decline of Greek civilization.
Seferis's journal, or more precisely that portion of it printed here, begins shortly after the liberation of Greece by the Allies at the end of World War II. (p. ix)
[Following the war, Seferis] and his wife Maró went off for two months to a house appropriately named Galini—the Greek word for calm, peacefulness, serenity—on the island of Poros near the coast of Argolis.
It is here on Poros that the first of the three central preoccupations of this journal begins. Seferis seems to have had some intimation of what was about to happen to him. "I am starting," he writes, "on a long, very dark voyage, and I'm deeply wounded by my land." Nursing that wound, thinking to escape everything, he comes to the Galini only to discover that his voyage has brought him to the great poem his whole life had been preparing him for. To the reader who knows that poem, "Thrush," these are pages of endless fascination through which one can chart the gradual emergence of this work which, as Seferis says, sums up all the past years and brings to fulfillment ideas for verses he had for some time been jotting down at random in his journal. One finds those "ideas"—phrases, rhythms, images, thoughts—hidden away in this diary from its earliest pages; many of them eventually take their final form in the "Thrush," others are employed even later in Three Secret Poems. His experience of the Galini, "the house by the sea," which gave him as he later said "for the first time in many years the feeling of a solid building rather than a temporary tent," leads him down Proustian paths to speculate on the houses he has known and lost during his lifetime, and these memories become the genesis of the plangent threnody on houses that forms the opening section of the "Thrush." So too, we see him go off one day for a swim and come upon the sunken wreck which provides his poem with its title and one of its basic images. In the same way, we follow his increasing preoccupation with the light—"the most important thing I've 'discovered' since the time the ship that brought me home entered Greek waters." The presence of the sea and the insistence of the "angelic and black light" become more and more overwhelming for him, until in the end he has to close the shutters of his room to block them out in order to finish his poem. As one follows the daily life and thought this journal records, one watches the elements of Seferis' poem take root and flower; one feels the febrile tension of the poetic process, the moments of illumination, the heavy fatigue of creation, inspiration's "sudden flaring up and dying down like green wood burning"; until finally one experiences the drained sense of relief as the poem is completed on the last day of October. If the name of the house on Poros seems strangely to echo the culminating word of Seferis' first great poem, so too the last experience he records on the island echoes an image and a hope expressed in that same poem, "Mythistorema," over a decade earlier. For as he leaves Poros at the beginning of December, the sight of the first almond tree in flower performs a kind of benediction on these weeks of introspection and creativity.
The second great preoccupation or theme of this journal is Cavafy, to whom Seferis' thoughts return again and again. This should not of course be surprising, since Cavafy's achievement can never be far distant from the thoughts of any modern Greek poet; it is something that everyone who would fashion poems in that language must somehow come to terms with…. Yet the subject was only to prove increasingly refractory for him. In some very basic way, his experience of life obliged him ultimately to reject the great art of Cavafy in favor of the humbler, earthy, analphabetic, vital prose of Makriyannis. But one s ould recognize that such a rejection, if that is even the proper word for it, comes paradoxically only at the ultimate stage of admiration…. Nonetheless, in April 1950 he copies into this journal some of the extensive notes he had assembled…. Fragmentary and undeveloped though they are, they remain extraordinarily suggestive and provocative, with the insights that only one great poet can have about another. At times they come close to expressing Seferis' own ars poetica. Throughout these critical observations, one is conscious that their special luminosity derives from a lifetime of reading and experience, of asking what it means to be a Greek, of steadfast fidelity to the Muse of poetry. (pp. x-xii)
It is hardly an exaggeration to claim that [the] destruction of Smyrna [his birthplace] was the determining historical event in Seferis' life: it is this that made him feel permanently and profoundly heimatlos, this that gives all his poetry its sense of irredeemable alienation, this that demanded his lifelong search for his identity as a Greek. (p. xiii)
The burden of emotion in [the] final pages is almost intolerable. Returning to the place of his beginnings, Seferis feels that his life has come full circle and that all his past is both summed and summoned up. "At every step, memories stir within me overwhelmingly; a constant, almost nightmarish piling up of images; incessant invitations from the dead."… "Memory," he wrote in one of the two beautiful poems he composed during his visit to Skala, "wherever you touch it, hurts."
But Memory, as Greeks have always known, is also the Mother of the Muses. Out of the experiences so vividly recorded in this journal, the repository of memory, some of Seferis' finest poetry was created. The chronology of events and experiences … is, in the last analysis, unimportant. "I didn't have in mind," Seferis explains," 'to write the story of my life, day by day.' Day by day we live our life; we don't write it." What matters is rather the unique sensibility which shines out of every page. Often Seferis' perceptions have the painful sensitivity of an open wound, "pulsing in the midst of life," and there are entries here written in blood. Often his perceptions are given instantaneous form and shape by his intense mythopoeic awareness, and there are moments when we behold the raw stuff of life miraculously transmuted in the alembic of this poetic imagination. Often his perceptions are endowed with lengthening shadows in the receding perspective of memory. But always, his mind and heart are open to receive whatever life proffers, however rewarding, however painful. And courage is not the least of the qualities that make these pages so memorable. (pp. xiii-xv)
Like all the most significant journals, it tells us not so much what its author did day by day as who he was and who he became as those days went by. It bestows on us, ultimately, the gift of himself, preserving for all time the lineaments of the living, experiencing man and his singular honesty in facing the light of day. As such, these daily jottings are precisely what he so touchingly called them: "the footprints one leaves behind as he passes." (p. xv)
Walter Kaiser, in his introduction to A Poet's Journal, by George Seferis, translated by Athan Anagnostopoulous (copyright © 1974 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College; excerpted by permission of the author and publishers), Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1974, pp. vii-xv.
Originally entitled Days of 1945–51, [the] portion of Seferis's voluminous diary [published as George Seferis: A Poet's Journal] was first made ready for publication in Greece in 1967 because, he said, its pages stood out "almost by themselves, among the many that we use to help our memory in various ways." Memory, which Seferis himself found inescapably painful, thus becomes the keynote of the book, woven like a dark thread binding together each of its dominant themes, yet paradoxically evoking and shaping his most moving poetic utterances. (p. 311)
[At] the end the great poet sums up, in a dramatic crescendo of feeling, what he meant by saying that these pages stood out by themselves among many such which the artist uses to help the memory "in various ways." One of those ways may be seen in the poetry itself, which for many years Seferis had fashioned out of the raw stuff of life recorded in his diary. As a native Greek poet he could hear echoes of Homer and see evidences of ancient as well as modern Greece all around him. Thus … he enjoyed a certain advantage over foreign contemporary poets like Pound and Eliot, who also draw on Classical mythology for their substance…. [He made the fullest use of that advantage] by making his mythic gods and heroes come alive in a vividly realistic setting; so that in his poems the ancient and modern worlds, and the roles of past and present become intermingled and identified as Seferis draws "a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity" to give shape and significance to present day futility and anarchy. (p. 314)
[Just] as Stratis-Odysseus serves as the poet's voice, so Elpenor in Mythistorema and later poems stands for his weaker companions—typically, a "figure who reveals the weakness of a spirit that so frustrates his captain and … makes the voyage agonizing and endless." Elpenor is a Homeric "sub-hero," a minor character and a man of little substance; but Seferis develops the brief mention of him in Books XI and XII of the Odyssey into a full-fledged "portrait of pervasive mediocrity," most fully presented in the "Argonaut" section of Mythistorema (No. 4) and in the middle section of "Thrush," his most ambitious poem. Elpenor, therefore, is also a central figure in Seferis's poetry, one who, the poet himself explained, "symbolizes those to whom we refer in daily conversation with the expression: 'the poor devil.' However, let us not forget that these guileless men, exactly because they are 'easy,' are often the best carriers of an evil which has its source elsewhere."… [These] modern Elpenors are even more sharply dramatized in the poem "Thrush," where Elpenor takes center stage as a hot, sensual would-be seducer of Circe ("whom not even Odysseus could master without a god's help") and is put down and humiliated by Circe's hard, realistic dismissal of his sentimentalized recollection of lost, bygone beauties and fragmented memories of lovely moments. (p. 315)
Eugene Current-Garcia, "Days with George Seferis: A Review Essay," in The Southern Humanities Review (copyright 1975 by Auburn University), Summer, 1975, pp. 311-17.